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View Full Version : Lamenting the retirement of Justine Henin & the narrowness of the current game


pov
Feb 23rd, 2011, 09:49 PM
Posted: Tuesday February 22, 2011 11:03AM ; Updated: Tuesday February 22, 2011 12:25PM (http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2011/writers/bruce_jenkins/02/22/justine.henin/)
Bruce Jenkins >INSIDE TENNIS

So many reasons to lament the retirement of Justine Henin

Justine Henin's retirement is one of the most discouraging episodes in the sport's recent history, and no one seems more crushed than Justine herself. In a recent press conference, she described her decision as a "sentence," dictated by her long-tormented elbow, and sounded as if she'd be haunted by this injury during the remaining years of her prime.

There are so many reasons to lament her absence. We'll miss her stirring rivalries with Kim Clijsters and Serena Williams, the historically pure one-handed backhand, the chance to watch her fend off the new generation of baseline blasters, and the eternal mystery of her persona.

With so many great players, the personality matched the on-court style: Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf, or the shining light of today's tour, Francesca Schiavone. Occasionally you'll find a case of direct opposites -- the delightfully whimsical Monica Seles (pre-stabbing) versus the cold-hearted brutality of her game -- and Henin certainly fit into that category.

Henin's game spoke of joy and free expression, and it gave the tour a measure of all-court tradition. Navratilova once said Henin was among the very few players she'd pay to watch, "because she plays the right way." But such qualities hardly linked to the person within. From the start, Henin's family upbringing was marked by tragedy, strife, separation and distrust. So often she seemed moody or distracted during press conferences, even after a soul-satisfying victory. Her life was stressful and complicated, and it showed on her face.

I remember the words of Sports Illustrated's Scott Price, who wrote of Henin, "Few athletes ever excelled for so long on a mix of such dark fuels." And in the press conference announcing her retirement at the Australian Open, Justine said, "If there is one thing I could regret, it is that I protected myself too much and could not be closer to you. I hope you will forgive me."

Of course. Forgiveness comes easily when it comes to the truly great athletes, and Henin's life was merely troubled, not marked by criminal behavior or a lurid lifestyle. What's more difficult to forgive, on the tennis landscape, is the robotic, vision-free relationship between coach and player among young prospects. As great as Henin was, she was never going to trigger a global coaching revolution. It's almost as if her star shone too brightly.

When I raised the issue with Joel Drucker, the noted author, historian and television writer who is so highly respected in the game, he was expansive. "Justine has a style that's never been seen before," he said upon her return to the tour last year. "Her game has this odd mix, like a female Roger Federer in some ways, but an all-court player, an aggressive player. Not so much like Martina, but an aggressive baseliner who uses variety, angles, lots of different plays. She just uses the dimensions of the court much differently than any woman -- and many men -- ever have. She takes balls early, opens up the court, and can hit through the court from either wing. She also has a sort of je ne sais quoi, the sort of thing you can't teach.

"So it's not like Billie Jean, who was mostly a serve-and-volleyer, it's something different, and it has to do with her development. Justine grew up in a little tennis pond. She got to be pretty good, pretty quickly, and because of that, she didn't have to worry about winning or losing. Just play. She likes to hit that backhand angle, but sometimes she throws in a slice to get people off-balance, and she loves to rip that forehand. What's pleasing is that she likes transition. Not just defense, then offense, but something much more fluid. She'll come in behind a return with a chip charge, but not always; she just might do a rip charge, and it leaves doubt in her opponent's mind. What's she going to do next?

"I talked to Martina about it, and she agreed," said Drucker. "There's a combination of vision, style and work ethic we've never quite seen on tour. And there's a grain of genius in there, definitely."

So what was Henin's impact in the realm of youth development? None. Zero. Same as Martina's. I remember Navratilova once saying, "You'd think maybe a few kids would see a really solid serve-and-volley attack and try to play like that, but ... no. Too much work, I guess."

So many stars of recent vintage have come out of Russia, but you could summarize the breadth of their ingenuity in two or three syllables. It doesn't exist. "I strongly doubt that a Justine Henin would ever emerge from Russia or the United States, " Drucker said. "A pint-sized Justine wouldn't have been allowed to develop that whippy, one-handed backhand on her own. She's be encouraged to use two hands and become a consistent baseliner, sold down the river by coaches who instruct narrowly and parents who value the game more for money and scholarships than the intrinsic rewards of self-reliance, exercise and hard work.

"I wonder, for example, if Melanie Oudin was ever taught to serve-and-volley or chip-and-charge as an occasional tactic. I once heard a story about how Dinara Safina's mother watched Fabrice Santoro (a master of artistic shotmaking) and called his style 'anti-tennis.' This is why Justine's ascent in Belgium was the best thing that could have happened to her. She had the freedom to experiment and build a playing style that worked for her. I dare our society of results-driven parents to spend more time on sustainable, positive engagement within in the sport. And when it comes to Russia [Drucker shakes his head], "It's a shame that these hard-working players from a nation of rich literature mastered only composition."

A significant part of the tennis boom of the 1970s, well beyond the flamboyance of a McEnroe, Connors or Nastase, was the machine-like focus and efficiency of Chris Evert and Bjorn Borg, pounding opponents into submission with the two-handed backhand. The game was changed forever, and not entirely for the good.

"Those two created a model for how children would play -- and how they would be able to generate revenue from tennis," Drucker said. "Whereas before, pre-1968, the point was to be as good a player as you could be, to match the craft. Sandy Mayer told me that. You weren't going to make money from it, anyway, so you needed to have the whole toolbox and be the best player you could be. Now, with the parents, it's all about winning. They're scared when they watch someone like Henin or Roger Federer. They're intimidated, because it takes a long time to perfect that style of play, and it's sad. It's societal. Parents are too worried about their kids losing. You lost -- unacceptable. You have to win.

"So if I'm the kid, thanks to the Evert- and Borg-created models, I'll be steady, I'll have a two-handed backhand, I'll concentrate OK, and there I go. Maybe a one-handed slice. Then I'll have everything I need. I'll be 12 years old, and I'll have the tools of what it takes to be a pro, to earn my scholarship, to win. When I'm 14 or 15, presto -- I'm Lleyton Hewitt. Or Elena Dementieva.

"So to see Justine," said Drucker, "is like watching a rainbow."

Shvedbarilescu
Feb 23rd, 2011, 09:55 PM
Really nice article and a good read. Thank you pov. :yeah:

debby
Feb 23rd, 2011, 10:04 PM
Ok before someone beats me to it :

Players forum.

:happy:

Sammo
Feb 23rd, 2011, 10:06 PM
I lamented her retirement in 2008, when she retired this year she was playing crap and full of injuries and mental barriers.

Talula
Feb 23rd, 2011, 10:20 PM
I lamented her retirement in 2008, when she retired this year she was playing crap and full of injuries and mental barriers.

Sad but true. The Tour did suffer first retirement around. But Justine was a shadow of her former self on her return.

This is a lovely article and relevant in 2008.

Lapaco
Feb 23rd, 2011, 10:35 PM
Sad but true. The Tour did suffer first retirement around. But Justine was a shadow of her former self on her return.

This is a lovely article and relevant in 2008.

she was worse in 2008 than in 2010. At least in 2010 she was motivated, but her body let her down. In 2008 she was horrendous on all levels.

pov
Feb 23rd, 2011, 11:02 PM
Ok before someone beats me to it :

Players forum.

:happy:
Before someone beats me to it:
No! GM! Half the article is about some of the likely reasons that there is so little diversity in the current game. :yeah:

¤CharlDa¤
Feb 23rd, 2011, 11:20 PM
Complaint about no variety, but we have a number 1 playing a different kind of tennis and all we do is here complaints. Variety doesn't necessarily mean spectacular.

People need to look at themselves, really.

pov
Feb 24th, 2011, 12:01 AM
Complaint about no variety, but we have a number 1 playing a different kind of tennis and all we do is here complaints. Variety doesn't necessarily mean spectacular.

People need to look at themselves, really.

I agree with you that we could all benefit from looking honestly at ourselves. I also know it's not currently the most popular pastime.:)

As far as Wozniacki, I don't think she has a different kind of tennis or that she has yet developed a lot of shot versatility. For that I'd say A.Radwanska fits the bill.

Linguae^
Feb 24th, 2011, 12:15 AM
Yeah......... Somehow, WTA just needs her. That retirement was out of nowhere. :p

Volcana
Feb 24th, 2011, 12:16 AM
Today's game IS narrow, and Henin's game WAS different. That said, the tour isn't devoid of players who do it differently. Schiavone, Stosur, Kuznetsova, Venus even (She's a baseliner, but she's also one of the top two or three volleyers in the top fifty.) Even Serena's serve qualifies as 'different'. Clijsters' game is different.

Would I rather a typical baseliner who just hits as hard as they can had retired? Sure. But the tour's okay.

pov
Feb 24th, 2011, 12:48 AM
Today's game IS narrow, and Henin's game WAS different. That said, the tour isn't devoid of players who do it differently. Schiavone, Stosur, Kuznetsova, Venus even (She's a baseliner, but she's also one of the top two or three volleyers in the top fifty.) Even Serena's serve qualifies as 'different'. Clijsters' game is different.

Would I rather a typical baseliner who just hits as hard as they can had retired? Sure. But the tour's okay.

I agree that the tour is okay. But of the player's you mentioned I'd say yeah Schiavone - thanks for mentioning her. The rest - nah! The WS were different at first. Other than Seles no one was giving it all to the power game. Then, for the reasons mentioned in the article and others, most young players started being schooled in that style by coaches and systems that were more like assembly lines than craft schools.

DragonFlame
Feb 24th, 2011, 01:52 AM
I like the focus on work ethic and ´thinking out of the box´. The game definitely has been focusing more on winning then on developing your game. Definitely different from when the williams/henin age began. These girls were totally focused on developing their games and both the results and spectacular tennis came with it. It was fascinating to see every step in their development and cheer them on.

Nowadays which of these girls are going about it this way? Like the article says the russian/east-european girls are trained like machines, and they come up short of the mentality and weapons needed to be an all-time great. I can see why the writer thinks russia will never create champions like federer or henin. They just aren't approached or trained to be different, they're all the same.

So that brings us to: the special cases that bring something different will be the ones to step it up and lead the new generation. But right now, there just aren't that many special cases...

The only one who's really thinking out of the box is caro. Her tennis is different then everyone else's and that's why its so good. Unfortunately this style of play has a lot of limitations and downfalls. You need 100% focus or you just won't be able to keep up, she can't hit herself out of a situation. In the end this style will be very taxing on the mental side, as well as physical.

Can't wait to see the development of more young girls, hopefully there will be one or two amongst them that thinks outside of the box. We just need those unique individuals that make tennis so exiting for us.

DragonFlame
Feb 24th, 2011, 01:58 AM
Today's game IS narrow, and Henin's game WAS different. That said, the tour isn't devoid of players who do it differently. Schiavone, Stosur, Kuznetsova, Venus even (She's a baseliner, but she's also one of the top two or three volleyers in the top fifty.) Even Serena's serve qualifies as 'different'. Clijsters' game is different.

Would I rather a typical baseliner who just hits as hard as they can had retired? Sure. But the tour's okay.

I think the writer puts his focus more on the up and coming teenagers. Not the different players you mention that are older then 25. There's something unique about pretty much all the gals you mentioned, but not about the up and comers.

Azarenka, Pavlyuchenkova, Safina come to mind... all products of an eastern-european assembly line that will likely not be able to produce the unique individuals this sport needs.(and the highest level of tennis with it)

Which i find, and i suppose the writer also, sad...

¤CharlDa¤
Feb 24th, 2011, 09:33 AM
What I find interesting about juniors is that you have had very very successful juniors with different games who just can't make it far in the pros: Flipkens, Nicolescu, Glatch, Laine, Strycova, Gallovits, Cohen, Fichman...even Mestach, the most recent Junior GS winner. But then you compare them to the Pavlyuchenkovas, Kleybanovas, Azarenkas of this world, and well, who wins?

Except for very very few exceptions with incredible natural abilities, the thing is, big babe tennis actually wins you matches nowadays on the tour. And is much easier to 'teach' to natural athletes, who are competitive and determined, but not necessarily having that natural flair.

I think what Radwanska and Wozniacki are proving is that you can develop through the junior world and still have a 'different' game that is successful on the pro tour.

It will happen again, I think we just have to be patient. There are phases in a sport, and, seeing the incredible amount of injuries and early retirements, I do think we'll see the arrival of players with a different game soon enough.

Mr.Sharapova
Feb 24th, 2011, 09:39 AM
Complaint about no variety, but we have a number 1 playing a different kind of tennis and all we do is here complaints. Variety doesn't necessarily mean spectacular.

People need to look at themselves, really.

Well if you call Wozniacki's game as a style which includes varieties then:lol:. And a different kind of tennis doesn't mean it has to be a boring one :shrug:.

¤CharlDa¤
Feb 24th, 2011, 09:47 AM
But a different kind of tennis doesn't have to be spectacular either :confused: .

As I stated before, I'm not saying Wozniacki's game is necessarily based on variety. But it is different than what we usually see. In that sense, it participates to the variety of game styles on the tour.

It's like people want varied games on the tour, but only a specific type. Like Martinez-Sanchez or Schiavone or Henin. The rest is boring, worthless, useless, etc.